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Interviews

Mike Ladd: Cerebral Refugee, Part 1-2

By Published: April 18, 2005

I need a concept thats going to entertain me when Im doing the record or else Im going to get bored. Being an English teacher or a writer, I need a thesis. I need for there to be a cohesive thought.

Part 1 | Part 2

Spoken-word poet? Rapper? Alternative hip-hop producer? Sociology-minded conceptualist? Postmodernist? Mike Ladd is all of these. Ladd's 1997 debut album Easy Listening 4 Armageddon served notice that his was a major, original talent. Recent work—like his collaboration with Vijay Iyer, In What Language?, and his brand-new Thirsty Ear debut Negrophilia: the Album—stunningly demonstrate that this is a mature artist whose time has truly come. These two CDs are as much "jazz" recordings as they are anything else (I have seen Negrophilia filed in the jazz, rap, and electronica sections of three different Chicago record stores: something of an unconscious statement of Ladd's sui generis status). I spoke with Ladd about the new CD, his other numerous projects, and a great deal more.

All About Jazz: Your new CD Negrophilia: the Album is inspired by Petrine Archer-Straw's book of the same name, which is to a large extent about Paris of the 1920s and its obsession with African and black people and culture. What attracted you to this as a source material?

Mike Ladd: Well, the issue of negrophilia has been more and more prevalent in popular culture in the United States and, subsequently, global pop culture, since [the 1920s] and increasingly so in the last couple of years.

AAJ: So you see a correlation to the world's completely rabid consumption of black culture that's going on right now.

ML: Exactly. And so what attracted me to that source material is that it seemed to be attempting to find the beginnings of that obsession, at least how it manifests itself in the popular arts. What's interesting about her thesis—at least in what I got out of it—is how it's about that place where cultural exchange took place, where appropriation took place, where exploitation took place, but also where there was a give and take. And it accelerated the process of modernism. And I thought it was fascinating that her thesis said that if it wasn't for this contact zone between Africa, black America, and post-World-War-I Europe, you wouldn't have the modernism we have today.

AAJ: It's interesting to think that there was a point where something began, because that suggests that before that point, many Europeans never thought about Africans or black people at all.

ML: Well, that wouldn't be true at all; it's more that at that point, there was a certain population of white people saying, "not only is it great to think about Africa—to acknowledge Africans in our presence—but we're going to celebrate them. And that's a first. You can go back to artists representing black people in European culture all the way to the 1400s. People pop up in paintings, and as soon as there was a great deal of trade, in travel journals. Black people popped up—but they're hidden in landscapes, they're reluctantly acknowledged, and of course you have the whole noble savage [the simplistic idealization of so-called "uncivilized and "primitive peoples as being uncorrupted by civilization and therefore superior] phenomenon at the end of the nineteenth century going into the twentieth century. And then what happens in [the book] Negrophilia, in the 1920s, is the avant-garde takes that noble savage idea and tries to turn it into something else. Petrine Archer-Straw says that they fail in a lot of ways. But there is an attempt; they try to take it out of the noble savage perspective and it doesn't really work.

AAJ: I also thought that it couldn't have hurt your initial interest in the book that right on the cover is Josephine Baker, whom you mentioned in "Planet 10 on your CD Welcome to the Afterfuture—which came out before the book was even published.

ML: It's funny, also, because my mother has always been very interested in Josephine Baker and has, since she retired, written a novel that focuses on Josephine Baker's life in many ways. It's not out yet; she's still finishing it.

AAJ: The book Negrophilia itself is very much about Paris, and when I first got in touch with you to set up this interview you were in Paris; how did that feel to you?

ML: I think that was the other part of why I felt it was appropriate for me to use that book as a reference and why it was fascinating: I moved to Paris a year-and-a-half ago for strictly romantic reasons. My wife—she's half-black American, half-French—grew up in Paris; she's a product of the first jazz migration over there in the 1950s. And she has no interest in being in the United States. I was actually trying to move to Connecticut to get more space. I was looking for cheaper rent than New York. So she said "Paris, and I thought, hmmm, Bridgeport? Paris? Okay, I'll try Paris. My reasons were certainly not—I wouldn't have gone as a sort of black American continuing the expatriate experience. I feel that Paris, for those purposes—it's a little staid at this point, a little tired. It doesn't provide the same excitement it did in 1950; then you still had that clash of ancient culture with technology. And you had a pretty rough city at that time! Everyone was still really poor coming out of the Second World War. It was a city that was culturally exciting in a way that it isn't now—at least central Paris. That doesn't mean that there isn't an incredible amount of stuff going on, but I think that has more to do with the sort of global migrations that are going on. The same sort of excitement you'll find in Parisian quote-unquote immigrant neighborhoods—you'll find those in London and New York as well.

AAJ: The level of human travel today is almost going to ensure that there's a sort of levelling off of all cities—where they more and more resemble each other.

ML: Right. What you get, almost, is an Atlantic Rim: Boston to D.C. is almost one city—connected to London and Paris. And now that I'm living over there and I come to downtown New York, I see a bunch of the same people I'd see in Paris over here. They sort of pop up because they share the same neighborhoods: the Lower East Side and Oberkampf. Williamsburg and Oberkampf: it's the same neighborhood. That's the hip class, they can travel, but on top of that there's this immense global working class that, if they're not travelling, they have enough family members in different cities that there is still a profound cultural exchange going on—which connects those cities. Not even cultural exchange: familial exchange. If you came from Lagos [Nigeria], your family's in Lagos. You moved to London, part of your family's in London too, you've got a brother in Paris and more of your family's in New York. That's pretty common with a lot of different workforces. So that provides a whole other dynamic—metropolitan energy—that's interesting. So if I were to move to a place to enhance my art as a black expatriate, it would have been to one of those source cities like Kingston, Bombay, Lagos. Or parts of Bahia or Rio. These cities that are massive so-called Third World hubs and are creating a tremendous amount of energy culturally because of the technological and communication industries that are popping up there. Plus they're connected to postcolonial terminals like Paris and London, Los Angeles, New York.

AAJ: I'm going to shift into more musical terrain. The first track on your new CD Negrophilia, "Field Work, is a fantastic song: parts of it are outrageously swinging and polyrhythmic. There's an element of free jazz, there's a huge electronic component, and of course there are your words. This is very new-sounding music; I've never heard anything exactly like it and that makes me curious—out of ignorance—about its composition and construction. Can you tell me how you compose a song like this, both lyrically and musically, and how you set up the parts in the studio?

ML: That is sort of a three-part construction. All the songs [on Negrophilia] didn't necessarily go this route, but for "Field Work, [Drummer/all-around musician] Guillermo Brown and I—Guillermo is really a major part of this record—

AAJ: Yes, this CD is a collaboration between the two of you, right?

ML: Yeah. And if it were up to me and not the record company it would say "Mike Ladd and Guillermo Brown on the cover. Anyway, what we did—with a bunch of the songs, before we even went into the studio with the musicians, we got together and electronically jammed at my house. And what you hear at the beginning of "Field Work is me playing one sample and him playing another sample. So I'm playing "doonga-doon-doon —just pressing that on the MPC, which is a [percussion] sampler. And he's pressing something else—

AAJ: Yes, his part is the more percussive-sounding one?

ML: Yeah, he's doing the sort of kungas over it (mimics the rhythm). We spent a night doing that with a whole bunch of different songs and ideas. And we took those ideas into the studio with [trumpeter] Roy Campbell, [winds player] Andrew Lamb and [keyboardist] Vijay [Iyer]. Now, some of those songs were totally lost on them: "what the hell are we going to do with this?

AAJ: But you are starting with parts.

ML: Exactly. And they took those parts, played over those parts, and then Guillermo and I, in this case [with "Field Work ] together, after that recording session, took the information back to Guillermo's house and completely cut it up again. We'd take Andrew Lamb's horn sample and cut that up, put it in a completely different place than where he'd originally placed it. Or make it really short, so that we're actually sort of playing a note of his: something that I like to do. Even when we had live musicians who'd agreed to be manipulated like that—I don't like looping things or taking long samples, I like manipulating the sound as much as I can. So we ended up playing a lot of stuff with the notes that they played. Then the longer samples are the extended solos, stuff like that.

AAJ: So on Negrophilia there isn't a single solo—like for example, a horn player—just playing live over anything and not altered?

ML: There are, like, thirty-second samples that are only altered by, say, an effect. There are a couple of those.

AAJ: Because on the beginning of "Back At Ya, I thought it was live horns.

ML: That's all chopped-up. That's mostly my niece.

AAJ: Oh, that's Marguerite Ladd, who's credited with "sampled composition.

ML: Yeah. She's at New England Conservatory of Music for composition right now, and that was her freshman recital.

AAJ: (speaking in grade-point-average lingo) Oh, that's at least a 3.5; I'll give it a 4.0. The kind of world you create on your records—to me there's a very surreal and dreamlike quality. Negrophilia, for example, touches on that source material from the past, but on your recordings, past, present and future are all happening now. The ultimate example of this surreal quality to me is "Sleep Patterns of Black Expatriots Circa 1960.

ML: The person to really talk to about that song is Guillermo. I came up with the title. That's really Guillermo's production style; that's he and I sort of jamming for a while—and then I deliver that poem, going into these accents and bizarre stuff. Then he took all of that and pushed it all up and reorchestrated it. That's strictly Guillermo. He and I come from a similar space where we really linked—I think we're both really fascinated by stretching the limits. In high school, I listened to a lot of psychedelic music.

AAJ: Like who?

ML: Funkadelic was just a tremendous influence. "Wars of Armageddon, which is on Maggot Brain—I'm still trying to make that song. There's always a couple of songs you're trying to make your entire life and that's one of them.

AAJ: That's a pretty good template for excellence. "Blonde Negress is a reference to the sculpture of [Romanian sculptor Constantin] Brancusi, but in your lyric it's [superstar pop singer] Beyoncé being sculpted. It's that same feeling I get of past and present blurring.

ML: I consider myself a postfuturist. I need to put in the academic rigor to really put that essay out, but I believe that we live in a postfuturist era. It's really a part of postmodernism where past, present and future all come together. What happens with postfuturism is that it's no longer intentional. It's automatic, and what contributes to it is that with all the information that we get in the world—and how quickly we get it—people are constantly responding to that information. And the more bizarre the information is, the more bizarre the acts that we commit that respond to that information.

AAJ: That would seem inevitable.

ML: Yes, and we get into the inevitable surrealist spiral. We're at a point where science fiction writers are trying just to keep up. (laughter) Surrealists are trying to keep up.

AAJ: And satire is completely unnecessary.

ML: And irony doesn't exist anymore. I call it postfuturist strictly focusing on the science-fiction element; we are living every science-fiction fantasy, every futurist fantasy, that people have been coming up with from the 1920s through the Fifties and Sixties.

AAJ: Speaking of science fiction: sometimes your recordings seem very dystopian—like a mixture of Philip K. Dick, William Burroughs' Interzone, and [psychedelic comedy recording artists] the Firesign Theatre's Funway—only blacker, more urban. Like you say on "Welcome to the Afterfuture [from the 1999 CD of the same name], more a Gunway than a Funway.

ML: That [CD] was sort of a tribute fusion to [cult 1984 film] Buckaroo Banzai and Firesign Theatre's record Not Insane. Wow; I'm glad you got that.

AAJ: Whenever I encounter someone who knows Firesign—in my life, about three people in a million—I'm going to mention it to them.

ML: Me and my stepfather used to listen to that record Not Insane on my way to elementary school. That record is really fucked-up.

AAJ: Just like Funkadelic, those guys were way ahead of their time.

[The conversation declines as Ladd acts out a particularly hilarious Firesign routine to great hilarity.]

AAJ: You should be happy because I bet you don't get to quote those lines to many people—certainly not to a girlfriend or wife.

ML: Oh, exactly. No Monty Python either.

AAJ: Some things you just have to keep to yourself. To completely trivialize this chat about Negrophilia before I move on: I walk underneath a billboard advertising the local rap/r&b station pretty much everyday and it has a huge picture of Beyoncé. For weeks now when I see it I always hear your lyric "Brancusi Sculpting Beyoncé in Gold Lemay in my head.

ML: I've got a lot of respect for pop! That's a pop tool. So that's perfect!

AAJ: Your music is, ah, modern as hell. But in one sense, you're kind of old-fashioned: you're an album artist in an iPod Shuffle world. It seems as you conceive each album as a conceptual whole.

ML: For me, there's a yes/no answer to that. Because yeah, I try to make an album—I always get accused of making concept records. But to me, everyone makes a concept record. If you're fifteen years old and you're like, "yeah! We're going to start a band! We're gonna see more girls and get fucked up and drive our cars... Well, great: that's a concept. But for me, I need a concept that's going to entertain me when I'm doing the record or else I'm going to get bored. Being an English teacher or a writer, I need a thesis. I need for there to be a cohesive thought. And that's how that happens. But it's funny, because—I think you said "iPod Shuffle world, but it's beginning to change, but with my first couple or records, I made them with the intention of people picking out what they wanted and sticking it on their mixtape. Because that's how I listened to music. To this day, there are not that many records after 1991 that I listen to all the way through. But that doesn't make me like the record any less because of what I have taken from the record to put on a mixtape. That's changing as I have returned to [hearing] full albums and I'm concentrating on listening to different music. Before I started this record [Negrophilia]—and I think it influenced this record—I was listening to a lot of modern classical stuff from the seventies, sort of where that meets with jazz.

AAJ: Can you give me an example?

ML: [Composer/orchestrator/synthesist] T. J. Anderson. I liked him a lot, and that got me [aware of] the CRI [Composers Recordings, Inc.] label, so I would just grab anything on that label that I could get my hands on. And of course Stockhausen. Now I'm working with this young guy in Paris—twenty-five-year-old kid—who's studying the history of electronic music. So I'm learning a lot from him, from what he brings back from the school library.

AAJ: It's really great to discover something musical that you missed until now, especially if some record label seems to specialize in it.

ML: It's funny, because it's been a tiptoe with this one [electronic music], because finally I have the chance to just immerse in it, whereas before I wanted to—I'd sort of delve into the samples, but I didn't get to really think into it. I think because I've been sharing a studio with this young, incredibly enthusiastic person, I've been able to get back into that. It's funny—I grew up in Boston, and my mom's an academic, so she knew a lot of composers. She used to always take me to all sorts of concerts. They put me to sleep; she'd say, "you want to see [boogie-woogie pianist] Bob Seeley? I'd go and it'd be [sings a musical refrain suggesting something dull and incomprehensible]. Or we'd go see T. J. Anderson, never got it. Then one day after I'd seen a whole bunch of these concerts in a row I was getting pretty burned out. [ ... ] Even jazz at that point—I was eleven years old—wouldn't flip me out all the time. "Do you want to go see Cecil Taylor? Then I'd go, eleven years old, trying to get into it.

AAJ: At least he hits his piano really hard.

ML: Yeah, that's true. (laughter) But one day, she said, "do you want to go see Bob Marley? I said, "ahhhh, I think I'll pass. I'm regretting that to this day!

AAJ: And she's probably still reminding you of it.

ML: Oh, she came back that night with the Bob Marley live record and just played it nonstop. I'll tell you, I'm thirty-four years old and I've been regretting it for twenty-three years.

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